Stagecoach Mary (Mail Carrier – c1895)
Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary (c. 1832 – 5 December 1914), was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, and just the second American woman to work for the United States Postal Service.
Fields stood 6 feet (182 cm) tall and weighed about 200 lbs (90kg), liked to smoke cigars, and was once said to be as “black as a burnt-over prairie.” She usually had a pistol strapped under her apron and a jug of whiskey by her side.
She then worked in the home of Judge Edmund Dunne. When Dunne’s wife Josephine died in 1883 in San Antonio, Florida, Fields took the family’s five children to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, the mother superior of an Ursuline convent in Toledo, Ohio. In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Amadeus was ill, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her. Amadeus recovered and Fields stayed at St. Peter’s hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, repairing buildings and eventually becoming the forewoman.
The Native Americans called Fields “White Crow” because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.” Local whites did not know what to make of her. One schoolgirl wrote an essay saying: “she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature.” In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop ordered her to leave the convent.
In 1895, although approximately 60 years old, Fields was hired as a mail carrier because she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She drove the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach.” If the snow was too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
Fields was a respected public figure in Cascade, and on her birthday each year the town closed its schools to celebrate. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption.
Death and legacy
Mary Fields died of liver failure in 1914. In 1959, actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said: “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.”
|EX-SLAVE MARY FIELDS FELT AT HOME IN MONTANA, WHETHER WORKING IN A CONVENT OR MANAGING A MAIL ROUTE.A Black gun-totin’ female in the American wild west. She was six feet tall; heavy; tough; short-tempered; two-fisted; powerful; and packed a pair of six-shooters and an eight or ten-gauge shotgun. A legend in her own time, she was also known as STAGECOACH MARY.Mary Fields was born as a slave in Tennessee during the administration of Andrew Jackson — a feisty sort with whom she shared driving ambition, audacity, and a penchant for physical altercation on a regular basis. She smoked rather bad homemade cigars.Well after the Civil War loosened things up, as a free woman in 1884, having made her way to Cascade County (west central Montana) in search of improved sustenance and adventure, she took a job with the Ursuline nuns at their mission in the city of Cascade — such as it was. (Cascade that is, not the job, although it was not much to speak of either.) Called St. Peter Mission, the nuns’ simple frontier facility was relatively well funded, if remote, and the nuns did a thriving business converting heathen savages, and other disgusting customers, to the true path of salvation — although not salvation from the white men.
Anyway, Mary was hired to do ‘heavy work’ and to haul freight and supplies to keep the nuns’ operation functional and well fed. She chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, dug certain necessary holes, and when reserves were low she did one of her customary supply runs to the train stop, or even to Great Falls, or the city of Helena when special needs arose.
On such a night run (it wasn’t all that far, but it was cooler at night), Mary’s wagon was attacked by wolves (maybe they wanted some of the dried beans or nun suits on board). The terrified horses bolted uncontrollably and overturned the wagon, thereby unceremoniously dumping Mary and all her supplies onto the dark prairie.
The more doubtful part of the story further says that Mary kept the wolves at bay for the whole of the night with her revolvers and rifle. How she could see them in the pitch black night is not explained however, but she did survive and eventually, when dawn broke, got the freight delivered, to the great relief of the nuns who had spent more than $30 on the goods in question (which was their principle concern). At the same time, they had no hesitation to dock Mary’s pay for the molasses that leaked from a keg which was cracked on a rock in the overturn.
At least Mary was prepared for such inconveniences as wolves (or others — such as drunken cowboys), being heavily armed at all times, and ready for a fist-fight at the drop of a hat. “Pugnacious” is not really an adequate word to describe her demeanor.
Since she did not pay particular attention to her fashion statement, and otherwise failed to look and act the part of a woman in the Victorian age (albeit on the frontier), certain ruffian men would occasionally attempt to trample on her rights and hard won privileges. Woe to all of them.
She broke more noses than any other person in central Montana; so claims the Great Falls Examiner, the only newspaper available in Cascade at the time.
Once a ‘hired hand’ at the mission confronted her with the complaint that she was earning $2 a month more than he was ($9 vs. $7), and why did she think that she was worth so much money anyway, being only an uppity colored woman? (His name, phonetically, was Yu Lum Duck.) To make matters worse, he made this same complaint and general description in public at one of the local saloons (where Mary was a regular customer), and followed that up with a (more polite) version directly to Bishop Filbus N.E. Berwanger himself (to no avail).
This was more than enough to boil Mary’s blood, and at the very next opportunity the two of them were engaged in a shoot-out behind the nunnery, next to the sheep shed. (Actually it turned into a shoot-out, because when Mary went to simply shoot the man as he cleaned out the latrine — figuring to dump his body in there — she missed. He shot back and the fracas was on.)
Bullets flew in every direction until the six-guns were empty, and blood was spilt. Neither actually hit the other by direct fire, but one bullet shot by Mary bounced off the stone wall of the nunnery and hit the forlorn man in the left buttock, which completely ruined his new $1.85 trousers. Not only that, but other bullets Mary fired passed through the laundry of the bishop, which was hanging on the line, generously ventilating his drawers and the two white shirts he had had shipped from Boston only the week before. What his laundry was doing at the nunnery is not clear.
That was enough for the bishop; he fired Mary, and gave the injured man a raise.
Out of work and needing some, Mary took a stab at the restaurant business in Cascade. Unfortunately Mary’s cooking was rather basic, which means that nobody would eat it, and the restaurant closed in short order. She was looking for work yet again.
In 1895, she landed a job carrying the United States Mail. Since she had always been so independent and determined, this work was perfect for her, and quickly she developed a reputation for delivering letters and parcels no matter what the weather, nor how rugged the terrain. She and her mule, Moses, plunged through anything, from bitterly raw blizzards to wilting heat, reaching remote miner’s cabins and other outposts with important mail which helped to accommodate the land claim process, as well as other matters needing expeditious communication. These efforts on her part helped greatly to advance the development of a considerable portion of central Montana, a contribution for which she is given little credit.
Known by then as Stagecoach Mary (for her ability to deliver on a regular schedule), she continued in this capacity until she reached well into her sixties, but it wore her down. She retired from the mail delivery business, although she still needed a source of income. So, at the age of seventy, she opened a laundry service, also in Cascade.
Figuring that by now she deserved to relax just a bit, she didn’t do a lot of laundry, but rather spent a considerable portion of her time in the local saloon, drinking whiskey and smoking her foul cigars with the sundry assortment of sweating and dusty men who were attracted to the place. While she claimed to be a crack shot, actually her aim toward the cuspidor was rather general, to the occasional chagrin of any nearby fellow patrons — never mind, she did laundry.
One lout failed to pay his bill to her however (he had ordered extra starch in the cuffs and collar). Hearing him out in the street, she left the saloon and knocked him flat with one blow – at the age of 72. She told her wobbly drinking companions that the satisfaction she got from that act was worth more than the bill owed, so the score was settled. As luck would have it, the tooth of his that she knocked out was giving him trouble anyway, so there was no reprisal. Actually, he was grateful.
In 1914 she died of a failure of her liver. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which may still exist today.
In spite of her drinking, and cigar smoking, and occasional fisticuffs, townsfolk were hard pressed to believe that this mellow (!?) old woman of 80 was the hard shooting and short-tempered female character of earlier years they had heard so much about. But they were wrong, she was.
|I am Mary Fields.
People call me “Black Mary.”
People call me “Stagecoach Mary.”
I live in Cascade, Tennessee.
I am six feet tall.
I weigh over two hundred pounds.
A woman of the 19th Century,
I do bold and exciting things.
I wear pants.
I smoke a big black cigar.
I drink whiskey.
I carry a pistol.
I love adventure.
I travel the country,
driving a stagecoach,
delivering the mail to distant towns.
Strong, I fight through rainstorms.
Tough, I fight through snowstorms.
I risk hurricanes and tornadoes.
I am independent.
No body tells me what to do.
No body tells me where to go.
When I’m not delivering mail,
I like to build buildings.
I like to smoke and drink in bars with the men.
I like to be rough.
I like to be rowdy.
I also like to be loving.
I like to be caring.
I like to baby sit.
I like to plant flowers and tend my garden.
I like to give away corsages and bouquets.
I like being me, Mary FieldsSource: http://www.blackcowboys.com/maryfields.htm